A few weeks ago, I was driving around in Levy County when I saw a sign for Hart Springs.  I made a note to check it out on the Internet when I got home.  Springs are Central Florida’s beaches.  Basically, they’re swimming holes.  In their natural state they are bright blue, and they are found in what is called a “spring run” off a river.  The swimming area is sometimes roped off from the murky river and sometimes not.  Springs vary in size from large (Rainbow Springs) to tiny (Rum Island).  They can also be classified as G- or X-rated, depending.

Since I don’t swim, my interest in the springs is mostly a scenic one.  Hart Springs’ Web site promised a half-mile boardwalk and other exciting recreational activities like horseshoes.  It was my second stop along the Suwannee.  I failed to make the left turn off the CR 340 and had to backtrack.  There was no signage for Hart Springs anywhere, and even my trusty Florida Gazetteer failed me once I’d gotten into the middle of Bell.  Bell is a tiny place, agri-country, and it suffers some of the most perplexing mapping in Florida.  It’s just like a miniature Gainesville, so I should have felt right at home.  I will never understand how a road can simply end and then start up again a quarter of a mile away.  I also do not understand the thought process behind the placement of directional signs.  I did see one sign for Hart Springs, but it was not on the road we traveled.  I found it by mistake when attempting to recover from yet another wrong turn.

There was no one manning the gate at Hart Springs.  A small sign instructed you to place your admission fee into an envelope, and then to place the envelope into a drop box.  After this, you were supposed to take a hang tag and put it in a visible place in your car.

There were neither envelopes nor tags.  We drove in anyway.  Normally I am far more law-abiding than this and I was all ready to suffer a day’s worth of guilt over the petty theft, but I left Hart Springs feeling as if it owed me something and not the other way around.

Hart Springs was flooded! Perhaps they could have put a notice about this tragic turn of events on their Web site, to discourage visitors who drive all the way from Gainesville.  Or perhaps they could have put a notice at the gate, or called out the militia.  Or something.  Off in the distance, you can make out the beginning of the boardwalk that was the reason for my visit.

Here you could see how neat-o Hart Springs would be at a time when the Suwannee had not overflowed its banks.  Hart Springs looked just like a Boy Scout camp!

Yes, the picnic pavilions that would see no happy munching of hotdogs, no sounds of children screaming at watersnakes, no forest fires…

The place was deserted except for a couple of lovers who were sucking face in one of the few dry areas of the park.  In order to give them some privacy and not to be accused of voyeurism, we decided to walk down to the river.  “Howdy!” the man called out.  I am from the city and I found this alarming. I looked to see if there were witnesses.  I was happy to then walk down towards the river and find this little spring burbling by the side of the road.  We spent a few minutes trying to decide if the spring ran under the road or originated here.  This was a very fulfilling exercise in deductive reasoning and I still do not know the answer.  Because I am from the city.

After climbing over a metal gate that separated Hart Springs from a public roadway, we found the Suwannee only slightly high.  Here is a boat ramp.  There was a man fishing on the bank of the river.  He, too,  said hello and I said hello back.  That was enough behavioral therapy for the day.

Stephen Foster wrote a song about this river without ever seeing it.  Prior to contracting the three-syllable “Suwannee” into two (“Swanee”), he had considered and then rejected the river “Pee Dee.”  We can be thankful that Mr. Foster had only a map of the day and not the Internet.  He would have been instantly spoiled for choice and he might never have gotten the song written.  A quick search reveals some real stunners:  Way down upon the Ashepoo River…Way down upon the Sopchoppy River…

(Fun fact:  Florida has five rivers whose names begin with a “w.”  These are the Waccasassa, the Wakulla, the Withlacoochee, the Wekiva, and the Weeki Wachee.  I don’t know about you, but if I’d been the author of the song I’d have gone right for the nicely alliterative Weeki Wachee.)

On the other side of the river road was a swampy little area where a few ibis sat on a branch.  My camera is not meant for wildlife photography.

A fence that fences off nothing.  Considering its purpose was not as fun as discerning the origin of the little spring, so I left the puzzle of the fence to greater minds than mine and started back towards Hart Springs.

A common Southern sight.  The swamp tangle.  Imagine how it must have looked to the first Florida explorers! This is one of the area’s greatest assets.  If you think America is overdeveloped, crowded, congested and pretty much a disaster area, come to North Central Florida.  You can go for miles without seeing any signs of civilization.  Not even a fake pioneer village or living-history reenactors. We will just have to keep this little secret to ourselves.  The rest of you, go straight to Miami Beach.

A riverfront property.  People who live on rivers are often flooded out.  Still, owning a riverfront property is a dream of many in this area, including myself.

This rating will likely be upgraded when either 1. the flood waters recede and I can use the boardwalk and horseshoe pit, or 2. Hart Springs posts a visible sign on either its Web site or at its gate about the utter unuseability of the park during flood season.